Posts Tagged ‘gollancz’

Far be it from me to be snobby about people’s reading choices. Just because I haven’t picked up those books about a sparkly vampire yet doesn’t mean I don’t want to be spirited away on a cloud of sparkly vampire romance and anti-feminist values. I am pretty sure I foresee a time in my life when those things will be vital ingredients in Project Hermit Weekend (aka Don’t Forget the Sakatas). But I digress, because I am here, of course, to talk about another couple of vampire books: Charlaine Harris’s Dead until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas.

If you’re into ‘background information’ and all that, then I’ll just point out that these books belong to the Southern Vampire series, New York Times bestsellers that inspired the HBO television series True Blood. Sookie, the heroine of the series (there are eleven books in total) is

blond and blue-eyed and twenty-five, and my legs are strong and my bosom is substantial, and I have a waspy waistline. I look good in the warm-weather waitress outfit Sam picked for us: black shorts, white T, white socks, black Nikes.

Sookie’s telepathic, and she’s suitably ambivalent about her ‘disability, or gift’, which allows her to listen in on the thoughts of those around her. It causes a bit of havoc in her mental space. She found school trying, what with her having to hear what everyone else thought about the problem they were working on, so she gave up on it and started working as a waitress instead. And she definitely doesn’t take many lovers; no one wants to hear exactly what a paramour is thinking when his hand is on your ass. So Sookie is settled enough, in a way: she’s found a way to live.

But she is fascinated by the undead, the vampires who a couple of years ago ‘came out of the coffin’ to live among the living, breathing human beings of the United States. They congregate in New Orleans, a kind of vampire epicentre, but rarely do the exotic creatures have the inclination to visit Sookie’s Bon Temps, a rural northern Louisiana town. So when Bill Compton sits at one of her tables, with his nose ‘like a prince’s in a Byzantine mosaic’, it doesn’t take long for her to think of him as ‘her vampire’.

Harris is a tidy writer, whose generally workhorse prose can be funny or unexpectedly vivid, which makes the occasional gaffe okay. Our narrator, Sookie, peppers her speech and thoughts with plenty of charming down-homey talk (though she gets syrupy when contemplating her beloved). Bill is the classic tall, dark and handsome stranger, with a twist – he likes Kenny G when not cocooned in peremptory silences, and prefers women to wear long skirts.

These are some snappy, sure crime books, and it’s easy to see why Alan Ball jumped at the opportunity to create a series based on them. Each book contains a stand-alone story arc, but the vampire–human dynamic is a troubled one that plays out with plenty of antipathy and violence. Dead until Dark sees Sookie targeted by a serial killer who targets women who sleep with vampires, and in Living Dead in Dallas, Sookie is requisitioned by the vampires of Dallas to help them find a lost brother, who may have got tangled up with a religious anti-vamp group.

But though the books are classified as crime fiction, there’s no doubt what these books are really about:

Suddenly I came. Bill howled as he reached his own completion, and he collapsed on me, his fangs pulling out and his tongue cleaning the puncture marks.

It’s a little bit unfair of me to extract these prototype soft-porn sentences, but they illustrate very nicely the odd take Harris has on her characters’ nocturnal activities. You won’t see any anatomically correct terms in Dead until Dark, for example; Harris prefers a primly indirect approach: ‘He slid directly into me’. But there’s no getting around the rampaging libidos of the vampires and the humans who want to have sex with them (‘fang-bangers’). Twine the regular pangs of lust with the additional delicious kick that vampires get from ingesting human blood, and you’ve got an all-night disco party. When Sookie is wounded with a toxic weapon, three vampires drain her of blood before giving her a transfusion. Sookie may be dying, but for her pale friends, it’s the degustation menu with matching wines. And the blood exchange doesn’t just go one way. Sookie partakes of Bill’s blood – vampire blood is healing for humans – and it ‘tasted good, salty, the stuff of life. My unbroken arm rose, my hand clamped the vampire’s wrist to my mouth.’

As my friend Daisy said the other day, ‘sex and death – what more could you want?’ (Well, actually, I think she said ‘sex and death’ and then shrugged. But that’s not an appropriate way to end a blog post.)

Sorry. I hope I haven’t put you off your lunch with 1) the moody backlit warrior maiden and 2) my feral desk. If you weren’t all that committed to nourishing yourself today anyway, I could tell you that I specifically had to angle this shot to avoid including perfectly normal pharmaceutical products which nonetheless would probably have made this insight into my life a bit too colourful for strangers’ consumption. So. Let’s be honest, it’s not that bad a picture after all (faux-Buffy notwithstanding, perhaps).

Those of you who know me or have read this blog for a little while will know that my genre of predilection is fantasy. I don’t read much true crime or historical fiction, graphic novels are few and far between on my literary plate, and I can’t lay claim to having enjoyed or fully read any self-help tomes. Generally, I’m an attempting-the-canon literary fiction girl. But FANTASY. I love it. It’s like a big juicy ice cream cone. Gooey, sticky, magic-y ice cream with crunchy satisfying narrative resolution every time (I guess that’s the cone).

Wow, are you bored yet? There’s nothing more boring than people rhapsodising about objects without explaining what they are or why the adulation is warranted. Hence:

Graceling is about a world where certain people are born Graced with uncanny skills. Katsa, the heroine, is a Graced killer. People born with these special powers are revealed when their eyes each resolve into a different colour. In Katsa’s country, when this occurs, the marked children are sent into the King’s service. As such, Katsa is a killer for the crown, and the role is beginning to wear thin enough that she has started a secret council whose members carry out secret good deeds under the power-hungry King’s nose.

Apart from a sluggish first couple of chapters, it’s a bona fide good old stock-standard fantasy book. The only time I ever mean ‘stock-standard’ as a compliment is respect of fantasy books. For me the predictable pleasure of reading a good fantasy book is twofold: I like the escapism and the trustily moral narrative arcs. The escapism is pretty self-explanatory — I get a kick out of written descriptions of human-dragon relationships (not romantic ones, I feel myself obliged to disclaim) and the way skilled fantasy writers can compound human relationships with the added burden of magical abilities. As for the narrative arcs, which in fantasy books are generally weighted in favour of honourable and beneficial resolutions, well, I think they’re as lucid a model for the universally applicable Introduction-Conflict-Problem-Adventure-Solution schema as any.

I like the fantasy books that deal with Grand Problems, and Graceling is certainly one of these. Look at the Harry Potter books, Isobelle Carmody’s books, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: these kids are all making pretty big decisions. The whole world rests on the shoulders of one preternaturally important/talented sprite. (Usually they’re quite shy/good-looking/self-deprecating/awesome at sword fighting, etc., too.) That kind of narrative conceit is fantastic for reaching shy/good-looking/self-deprecating/awesome at sword fighting kids, and enthralling them with the importance of behaviour and good decisions. I realise I sound like the least fun person on earth right now, but that is why I loved reading these books when I was a teenager.

I feel like I haven’t given Kristin’s book enough attention. That’s inexcusable, and I apologise (because she has a sword). But it’s a really good read. I borrowed it from a fantasy-consuming couple who both read Graceling in about a day. They both loved it, and so did I. Not to mention that a lot of these books have strong, young, female protagonists. These books are Feminism 101 for lots of young women, and an amazing resource for them when the world says no. The lessons aren’t written in black and white, either. Katsa first discovers what her Grace is when, as a little girl, she lashes out at a sleazy man who is giving her too much attention and kills him. How great a metaphor is this for the potential all people have to hurt one another, and how well does Cashore show Katsa’s turmoil as she is in turn misused for her hated abilities. Morally instructive lessons that are easy to identify with — check. Well-paced action, check. Hot love interest with sexy eyes — check. Come on, people.

Maybe I’m assuming too much, but if you agree with anything I’ve said, or like the fantasy books that I do, you will probably enjoy this. If you aren’t, then I’m surprised you are still reading this post at all, but maybe you are just addicted to the written word, and for that I commend you and suggest the telephone book as well.